Reminiscences and the Bagpipe Chapter XXVII The Romans and the Bagpipe
MANY people to-day
believe that the Romans were the inventors of the Bagpipe. Many people
also believe that the Celt borrowed it from the Romans.
Both beliefs, fostered
largelyI am sorry to say by expert ignorance in the past, are
The Bagpipe was first
introduced to the Greeks in the early half of the second century, B.C.
Two hundred years later
it was still unknown to the citizens of Rome; which fact settles once
and for all their claims to its invention.
Granted that the Bagpipe
came from without, its earlier introduction into Greece is what one
would expect when the history of the two peoples is kept in mind. Greece
was a mighty world-wide power, while Rome was still in swaddling
clothes, and she naturallypushing out her colonies, now here, now
therecame first in contact with the Celt, and with the Celts
instrument, the Bagpipe.
Her dominions extended
from Italythe southern half of which she occupiedand Sicily on the
west, to India on the east; from the countries round the Black Sea on
the north, to Alexandria and the Nile Valley on the south; and at every
point she came in contact with new peoples, including three separate
Celtic nationalities; civilising and being civilised; teaching and being
It was not until hundreds
of years after, and only when Grecian influences were on the wane, that
Rome rose to greatness. Then, and then only was she able, largely out of
the ruins of Magna Grecice to build up for herself that mighty empire,
which at one time looked like lasting till the crack of doom.
It is no wonder then,
that Greece first adopted the Bagpipe, or that the Romans, finding it in
Sicily and Calabria after they became masters in these places, retained
it in their service, but without improving upon it in any way, and have
kept it even to the present day as the Greeks left it, and with the old
Greek name of the harmonious one still attached to it.
But what of the Celt
borrowing it from the Roman?
This contention is easily
disproved by the following references to the Bagpipe, taken from Roman
Mr MacBain, of Inverness,
quotes the Rev. Mr MacLachlan, of Londona well-known Gaelic scholar as
being on his side, when he denies that the Pipe was known to any of the
early Celtic nations; but history is against Mr MacBain in this one, as
in others of his many fallacies on the Bagpipe. We have a history of two
events of different dates to help us in coming to a decision on this
The first event is one
taken from the recorded life of the Emperor Nero, which makes it pretty
certain that the Bagpipe was unknown to the citizens of Rome up to the
year a.d. 67.
Neros reign was drawing
to a close. The emperor had staged many a fine play for the Romans, but
none so grand, from the spectacular point of view, as that upon which
the tragic curtain had just been rung down. In this scene, Rome, the
Empress City of the world, was to be seen in the background in flames,
while in the foreground, illuminated by the glorious blaze of the doomed
city, stood Nero, gloating over his own handiwork, and dancing as he
fiddled. But now the curtain is being run up for the last time, and it
is in connection with the closing scene in that pageant of horrors, that
the Bagpipe as a Roman instrument first comes on the stage.
Utterly sickened by their
rulers licentiousness and accumulated cruelties, the citizens of Rome
at length rose up against him. Blood for blood, was their cry; and Nero,
seeing that they really meant mischief, turned coward, and fled for his
life to a friends house, some four miles out of the city. But the
infuriated mob, thirsting for fresh excitementthe killing of an emperor
was something newwere close upon his heels, and the conscience-stricken
man, now half mad with fear, sent a trusty servant to meet his pursuers
and give a message from him, in the hope of appeasing their righteous
anger, and of staying their further advance. His messagea silly one at
best ; a most unkingly message!was in effect: Give me another chance;
spare my life this time, and I will provide you with a treata something
quite novel, and which you have never witnessed before: I will play you
a tune on the latest and most marvellous of wind instruments, the
Now, whatever else Nero
may have been, he was no fool. He knew his people well, and he knew
none better !that the love of novelty was a ruling passion with the
lower Roman orders. Many a time and oft had he kept them in good humour
with his rare shows, even when he had to make the streets of Rome run
with blood. The one essential, however, to success in these old Roman
days was the novelty of the displayit must be something new.
And so, when the poor
wretch believed that he could buy the bloodthirsty crowd off with a tune
on the Bagpipe, we may be sure that the Roman ear had not been tickled
with it before. In short, that the Romans and the Bagpipe were complete
strangers to each other up to the closing days of Neros reign. These
events happened in a.d. 67.
But in 35 B.C., almost
one hundred years before Neros death, one of the Roman historians tells
us that he heard this instrument, still strange to the Romans, played
upon by the Celts inhabiting the mountains of Pannonia. Which again
disposes pretty effectually of the belief that the Celt borrowed it from
the Romans, and also proves that it was a Celtic instrument long before
it became a Roman one. As a matter of fact, the Bagpipe found its way
into Rome by two doors. It came in from the north through the Celts, and
from the south through the Greeks. From the north through Pannonia and
Umbria, and from the south through Calabria and Sicily.
The Celts of Pannonia and
Umbria were both powerful tribes in their day. It took the Romans two
long and hard campaigns to subdue the former. The latter lived in the
mountains to the north-west of Rome, and although only sixty miles from
the walls of the Eternal City, retained its independence for many a long
day; and those two Celtic nations used the Bagpipe, while the Roman
players were for many a long year after, blowing upon the tibia pares or
impares, with painfully distended cheeks and paralysed lipsa butt for
the jesters wit.
This Pipe from the north
was a one-drone Bagpipe with a chanter. The Romans called it Tibia
Utricularis, but the Celts called it Piob, or, in full, Pivalla, and
to-day, while the Roman name of Tibia Utricularis is forgotten, the
Celtic name survives in the Italian Piva. The Romans called the piper in
the old days Utricularius, but the Celt called him Piobaire (pron.,
Peeparuh), and to-day the Italians have dropped Utricularius and call
their pipers Pifferari.
The Pipe, which came to
the Romans from the south, was a many-drone Bagpipe without a chanter,
the 1,vfx<p'jovla of the Greeksthe Zampogna of the Italians, and the
piper was called Zampognatore. It was also called in the south the
Coma-Musa, and the piper was then called Suonatore de Corna-Musa.
To-day, however, the word for pipers all over Italy is Pifferarithe old
Celtic word only slightly altered and this is but right where a Celtic
instrument is concerned, and is a good example of the survival of the
fittest, for I do not suppose that the Umbrians ever used the name,
Tibia Utricularis for Piob, nor did the Pannonian youth who were drafted
into the Roman army.
These two Italian Pipes,
both of which are shown in the illustrations which adorn the pages of
this book, are as distinct nowthe one from the other as when different
races inhabited the land. Their geographical distribution has remained
the same for over two thousand yearsso slow does the world move. And so
conservative are the nationseven those which plume themselves upon
their radicalism that the old Celtic name of the Pipe survives in the
north, and the old Greek name survives in the south of Italy, although
the people to-day are of one race throughout the Peninsulaand that one
a race neither Celtic nor Greek.
But, once more, we still
find the Bagpipe flourishing in those countries where the old Greek and
the old Roman found it. In Pannonia, now represented by Bosnia, Servia,
and part of Bulgaria; in Roumania; round about Constantinople, where the
Boii, a powerful Celtic tribe, once flourished; and in Umbriafrom
whence came my Tibia Utricularis it is still kept alive by the
shepherds in the hills.
Thousands of years have
left it the same simple, rude instrument that it was in early days, and
the stranger to those countries may still hear among the mountains the
same simple, primitive strains which greeted the ears of the astonished
Greek soldier when he first passed through the Straits of the
Dardanelles or coasted along the shores of the upper waters of the
It is certain, then, that
the Romans were not the inventors of the Bagpipe, and that the Celt did
not borrow the instrument from the Romans, but lent it to them.
Quite recently, I heard
the statement put forward in all seriousness, that we Highlanders got
the Bagpipe from the Egyptians. I was spending a few days last summer at
Culfail, and when there I had the pleasure of meeting the kind and
genial Laird of Melford, Captain Stoddart MLellan.
He displayed great
enthusiasm over the Bagpipe, and all matters Celtic, and we became
friendly for the day, owing to our tastes being in accord.
While discussing the
Piob-Mhor, or Great War-Pipe of the Highlands, he suddenly asked me,
Where do you think the Pipes came from originally ?
I answered cautiously,
The ancient Tibia Utricularis ot the
Romansa very old Pipe, as the worn finger holes ot the hard walnut
chanter shew. The gilt of Mr Sutherland, Solsgirth, Dollar.
From Egypt, of course!
he replied. It is the Sistrum of Egypt. I was at a meeting lately in
London of pipers and one or two others interested in the Bagpipe, and we
came to the conclusion that it came originally from Egypt.
I did not tell him that
the Egyptian Pipe was nothing more nor less than the Greek Suniphonia, a
borrowed instrument, but I said, You are acquainted, I believe, with
Eastern peoples, and speak several of their languages, and you have also
studied, more or less, Egyptian hieroglyphics? Have you ever seen a
Bagpiper in hieroglyphic?
Then, why ascribe its
origin to the Egyptians? Well, you see, we came to that conclusion in
London, which was no argument whatever, but the best which the gallant
Captain could advance.
This craze, on the part
of Highlanders especially, to find a far distant or outside origin for
the Celtic Pipe, is more than puzzling to me. I cannot understand it at
all. It was due at first, I think, to the mistake of the Lowlander,
taking the old Highlanders blarney about its Roman origin, or its
Scandinavian origin, or its Egyptian origin, as his real opinion and
belief, while all the time the blarney was invented for the amusement of
the inquisitive stranger.
The Sistruni and the
Sumphonia of the Egyptians are two distinct instruments.
The Sistrum consisted of
a long narrow box bent in horse-shoe shape, with the two ends fixed into
a carved handle. Three or four metal rods were run through the box in
loose sockets. When shaken, this instrument produced a harmonious
jingling quite pleasant to the ear.
There is, I believe, one
reference to this Sistrum in Greek, under the title of Sumphonia,
although I cannot at this moment recall where the reference is to be
found. The Greek writer who gave this name to the Sistrum, must have
used the word before it was applied to the Bagpipe, and when it meant
only a harmonious combination of sounds such as the Greek instrument
gave forth when struck. There is no other connection between Sistrum and
Bagpipe that I am aware of, and if the Egyptians invented the Pipe for
themselves, history and tradition are silent on the matter. The Greek
Bagpipe was introduced into Egypt and was made familiar to the dwellers
in Alexandria and surrounding districts by Antiochus among others, and
Prudentius, the historian (b a.d. 300) informs his readers that the
Egyptians of his day used this same Pipe to lead the soldiers on the
In a magazine article
which appeared lately, called Arcadia, the Home of the Bagpipe, the
writer claims the invention of the Bagpipe for the Greeks. This is
entirely opposed to the teaching of the Greek myth which we have been
There, the Bagpipe was
the invention of one not originally a Greek : it was played on by an
outsider, the Satyr, Marsyas; and if Marsyas, as many good scholars say,
is no other than our old friend Pan, the Pipe judgeMidas of the long
earswas also an outsider, and Arcadia was certainly not the original
home of the Bagpipe.
From what race was the
Greek likely to borrow the Bagpipe? The Greeks themselves tell usand
who should know so well?that they borrowed their music largely from the
Celt. The very fact that both Greek and Roman had various designations
for Pipe and piper, while the Celt had only one, seems to me also to
point to the latter as the inventor.
But while I hold, as much
more than a pious opinion, that both nations got the Bagpipe from the
Celt, it would be unfair to say that the Greeks and the Romans did not
make any attempt to invent it for themselves.
The severe strain upon
the pipers cheek and lip muscles was realised to be a serious drawback
by both peoples from a very early period, and the faces made by the
poor players was for long a favourite butt with the court jesters.
To remedy this defect,
both the Greeks and the Romans hit upon the same plan. Support was given
to the tired muscles by means of an ingeniously arranged combination of
leather straps, which were fastened to the head, and was called by the
Romans the little cap. The remedy, however, proved worse than the
disease. The straps on the face were held to be more ludicrous than the
blown-out cheeks, and, as a matter of fact, the female players, who were
the best judges in a question of beauty, refused to wear the little
cap, and one cannot help sympathising with them.
The invention, then, of
this cap, was the two great classical nations sole contribution towards
the solving of the problem, which the Celtic shepherd accomplished by
putting the Pipe in a bag.
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